President Obama checks out the Hoover Dam. (David Nakamura/Washington Post)

President Obama made a surprise visit to the Hoover Dam on Tuesday after a campaign stop in nearby Henderson, Nev., a large Las Vegas suburb. 

"Its spectacular, and I've never seen it before," Obama told reporters when asked why he stopped at the Dam. "I didn't realize it was so close by." When an aide told him how short a trip it would be, "I said, well, we've got to go check it out."

Obama was greeted by Rob Skordas, assistant dam manager for history and operational logistics, and Janel Brawner-Potucek, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's assistant regional director of administration for the lower Colorado region. He asked them several questions. 

Skordas explained, "We can raise the water up or down depending on how we need it."
The president asked, "The power generated here, where's it going?" Skordas replied, "Mostly Southern California." Obama was surprised that the water wasn't heading to Las Vegas. 

"How long did it take to build it?" Obama asked. Skordas said the dam construction started in 1931 with 28,000 employees. Asked if any were killed, Skordas said yes, but "fewer than you can imagine." (Officially, 96, according to the Hoover Dam Web site. They get this question a lot.) 

The president did not respond to shouted press questions about debate preparations. Obama might be hoping to use the dam as an example of American engineering and ingenuity in Tuesday's first 2012 presidential debate. But given that President Herbert Hoover was soundly defeated after failing to bring the country back from an economic crisis, it might not be the best reference.